The Power of Sharing Stories: Meet Carolyn Saper

We reached out to Carolyn Saper, the cofounder and president of ReadAskChat, so that we could learn more about her and the work she does with her organization. ReadAskChat is a digital library that provides content for children, caregivers, and family members. Below, Saper shares some thoughts about ReadAskChat, its mission, and what education means to her.
Saper is the cofounder and president of ReadAskChat, which is a a picture-book quality digital library that uniquely embeds guidance for parents and caregivers in reading interactively (or “dialogically”) with their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.

Dialogic reading has been shown to foster virtually every reading- and school-readiness indicator—from vocabulary attainment and concepts about print to executive functioning and social-emotional development. The National Science Foundation (NSF) invested in ReadAskChat because of the innovative way we harness emerging app technologies and smart personal devices to support adults in fostering their children’s cognitive potential during the critical period of human brain development—0–4 years. In fact, we’ve been recommended for a second NSF investment to expand into kindergarten and first grade and to offer our adult-learning program online. (We should hear in August whether we will receive the grant.)

The ReadAskChat innovation—which NSF reviewers believed could be societally “transformative”—is threefold:

(1) We focus on reading for meaning beginning in infancy. Effective dialogic reading requires rich content that supports open-ended interpretation. To enable parents to do this well, we offer an easy-to-follow method (i.e., Read, Ask, Chat) and content-rich stories, poems, and math and science features—all of which include text-specific conversation starters  (in English or Spanish) on each page. These prompts coach parents to listen, respond, and facilitate natural back-and-forth (dialogic) engagement with their children about what they are reading together. Because each child’s experience with the library is mediated by a responsive and caring adult—and not by AI or an algorithm—RAC offers the ultimate in personalized learning.

(2) We offer a developmental continuum. ReadAskChat’s on-demand conversation starters are tailored for three phases in a child’s cognitive development: baby, toddler, and preschooler. These developmentally appropriate prompts act as a sort of coach for parents by providing multiple entry points for joint exploration. Our flexible, but text-based, system develops habits of close observation, elaboration, and sustained focus that foster discovery and deeper conceptual understanding. Our approach contrasts starkly with the orientation found in most other education products for children, which are based on skills-drills and rote memorization.  

(3) We complement the ReadAskChat library with a series of train-the-trainer adult-learning modules for purchasing organizations. While the modules were primarily designed for staff deliver to parents, we have been gratified to see that clients see the value of presenting them to their teachers and aides. They recognize how the modules distill and demystify higher-order thinking practices that build confidence and change the mindset of all the adults concerned with children’s early education.   

ReadAskChat’s tagline tells us its main goal:  fostering school readiness through joyful family reading and conversation.

I want our nation to better understand and value the precious window of early childhood, so we can collectively put in place policies and practices that will open the mind, tap creativity, and nurture the full potential of all children—and their parents.  

In addition to working with Alice around content creation, I think my favorite part of my experience with RadAskChat must be hearing from so many stakeholders about how excited they are about ReadAskChat. Our appeal is very broad, crossing cultural and economic boundaries, as well as goals and educational philosophies. Hardcore corporate “reformers,” child-centered progressive educators, and educationally astute parents and grandparents have almost uniformly embraced our method and product. Some focus on ReadAskChat’s capacity to promote early literacy, while others see the parent-bonding element as its most crucial contribution. Still others see the professional development we offer ECE teachers and aides as the most important. The newest buzzword is “2-Gen Education”—educating two generations (parent and child)—for maximum results. That’s precisely what ReadAskChat does!

ReadAskChat is the culmination of Saper’s career as an educator, curriculum designer, and publisher of children’s literature.

For years, Alice (ReadAskChat’s COO) and I have shared a love of reading and discussing books—a passion that has also defined our professional lives. But the inspiration for ReadAskChat comes from my personal experience as an adoptive mother. When my daughter first came home at 9 months, she was clinically failure to thrive. She couldn’t even hold her head up or babble or reach for shiny objects—things that much younger babies should be doing. But after only one month of reading picture books, singing songs, playing and snuggling, and “chatting” about anything and everything, my daughter was a fully caught up and happy 10-month-old. (Aside: she just graduated from college cum laude with special honors in philosophy.)  My daughter’s cognitive and emotional blossoming as a baby was never far from Alice’s and my thoughts when we first began conceiving ReadAskChat. We both continue to marvel that the simple act of creating a routine of sharing wonderful stories with a baby was so immediately impactful, with lasting effects. We are deeply committed to scaling the potential of ReadAskChat to enable all families to have a similarly joyful and brain-building learning experience with their own babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.

Saper thinks children should be excited to learn.

As far as what I would change about the way we talk about childhood education, I would throw out every standardized test and go back to the child-centered, experiential mode of learning that was popularized in the early 20th century by education giants like Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Carlton Washburne, Colonel Francis Parker, Helen Parkhurst, and so many others. What is happening now in the so-called “academically rigorous” ECE classrooms borders on abuse! Quit stressing kids and adults out, and stop teaching to the test. Instead, let children question and explore, and learn organically and developmentally. Put JOY back in learning by reading kids great stories and introducing decoding in context. Children will learn to read and to write when the groundwork has been laid appropriately and when they’re ready. Let children be children: they are hard-wired to learn.

When starting up with ReadAskChat, perhaps the most critical decision was to pursue company “incubation” through the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

In order to qualify for Booth’s Social New Venture Challenge, an MBA student had to partner with us. Enter Matt Rubin, who interviewed a number of teams before choosing ReadAskChat. Our partnership was so successful that we not only placed as a finalist in the 2016 competition, but also benefited beyond words when Matt joined us a cofounder after receiving his MBA. We absolutely could not have come this far without Matt at our side. 

Since ReadAskChat is a startup, Saper wears many hats in role.

I present ReadAskChat to learning organizations (including CLA!); lead staff and parent trainings for organizations using ReadAskChat; and I work with my partners to deal with the plethora of administrative tasks. But the most gratifying part of my role at ReadAskChat is working with my cofounder Alice Letvin, my colleague and friend for 35 years, to create the content—selecting stories and art, composing and editing text, writing THOUSANDS of enjoyable, open-ended, and text-based conversation starters—and creating what we believe is a distinctive, effective, and fun adult-learning program.

If she had to choose only one book as a favorite from her childhood, Saper would pick the Anne of Green Gables books.

Do I have to choose only one? All the Anne of Green Gables books were very meaningful to me. I wanted to know Anne, learn from Anne—be Anne! And I often reflect that through life’s twists and turns, I ended up being Marilla Cuthbert—adopting the most wonderful daughter in the world and becoming an instant parent in my, er, middle age. But I’ve also been indelibly shaped by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (life IS Wonderland—especially right now) and also the Oz books, The Jungle Books, Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, The Arabian Nights . . . . . I’d better stop now.

Jeff Goumas & CrowdED Learning

We caught up with Jeff Goumas, Founder of CrowdED Learning,  to chat about his organization, what drives him, and how he feels about education. Goumas is committed to helping adult educators and learners find and utilize the right educational resources. Below, he shares some of his personal thoughts about his experience starting up CrowdED Learning.

Goumas founded CrowdED Learning after seeing how hard it can be for adult learners to access and utilize educational content.

CrowdED Learning is focused on increasing the use of free and open educational resources (OER) within Adult Education. We believe there is incredible potential in all of the great freely available content out there; however, the process of finding, curating, and integrating these resources is cumbersome and inefficient, leaving the promise of OER something far from reality.

To remedy this, we are experimenting with different ways to improve the delivery of resources so they are more readily available to learners and instructors, the result of which we hope will be increased awareness and use. Our first big project—SkilBlox—is in process and launches this fall. It’s a tool we are building that will allow adult education instructors to generate personalized learning plans for their learners taking into account 1) the skills each learner needs to work on and, 2) the publisher resources instructors have available as well as the free resources they are interested in using. It’s our first step toward developing what ultimately will be a learner-driven platform organized by competencies and powered entirely by free and open educational resources, something we hope will allow for adult learners to retain access to and interest in learning even when they aren’t enrolled in formal education.

“We” are small at the moment—as in one person….me—so, I do a little bit of everything right now. My primary focus in the first year has been to spread awareness of our mission to educators and organizations who work within adult education, the goal of this being to establish strategic partnerships, something critical to our growth.

CrowdED Learning’s mission is to provide freely accessible learning tools that reduce barriers for adult learners’ education and employment while promoting persistence and lifelong learning in the digital age.

I believe the way to do this is to inspire collective participation in supporting adult education through crowdsourcing initiatives…hence our name. There are so many amazing but often uncoordinated things happening—engaging learning resources being developed and offered for free, great initiatives in how to upskill adult learners in meaningful and efficient ways; we want to support all of these things by connecting dots that currently aren’t being connected, developing tools to support and scale them, and creating opportunities for people to contribute in helping us make this happen.

Goumas’ work in education publishing has had a tremendous impact on CrowdED Learning.

I worked in educational publishing from 2002 until May of 2017, and during that time I had a front-row seat to witness the world of educational publishing grapple with the shift to digital. For years, there has been this notion of a “tipping point” when everything would shift to digital—meaning more digital sales than print. But, guess what? It still hasn’t happened. What instead has happened is a bunch of different players jumping into the education market—creating both disruption (good!) and confusion (bad). This led to lower sales and shrinking budgets while publishers shifted their focus to trying to find or build the next, new shiny thing in education. The ultimate cost of all this (in my opinion) was less and less focus on teacher and learner realities and virtually no focus on “low-margin” learning markets such as adult basic education.

If you look at other industries and how they have successfully shifted to accommodate digital, the commonality is that the delivery has become more important than the source. (Think, a la carte TV from multiple network providers delivered via Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, or streaming music from multiple record labels delivered via Spotify.) Unfortunately, I don’t know that publishers are necessarily ready to relinquish control in this manner. I was tired of working in an industry in which everyone was pretending they could offer some one-size-fits-all solution for education.

At the same time all this was happening, we saw movements that have led the creation of thousands of fantastic, free resources and learning platforms floating out there; but lack of awareness of what exists coupled with limited coordination and organization have made it unrealistic to expect already time-strapped educators to sift through all that. Again, lack of solid delivery options have presented a barrier. So, I finally decided it was time to launch an organization focused on trying to solve this problem, with a focus on adult education because of the limited attention focused on this learner population, the limited funding formal providers have to spend on materials, and the fact that people typically are more receptive to “experimentation” in underserved markets.

Goumas has always worked in education and enjoyed helping others learn, which helped inspire him to found CrowdED Learning.

My entire career has been in education, with a focus on trying to scale best practices. As a teacher, I loved developing curriculum and conducted a lot of professional development in my district. Through this work, I found that instructors really responded well to the curriculum resources I developed. Because creating all of my curriculum from scratch while teaching full time wasn’t something I could sustain forever, I made the difficult decision to leave the classroom and go into publishing so I could develop learning resources that had broad impact. I lucked out for much of my publishing stint in having the chance to work on some pretty cutting-edge projects; but, over the course of the last 5 years, I was seeing my ability to innovate dwindle as budgets became tighter in response to diminishing sales in the publishing world because of the aforementioned issues.

Along the way, I made the jump into adult education 9 years ago—not by choice, but because it was the only publishing job available to me during the economic downturn in 2008—and that was the most serendipitous thing that could possibly have happened to me. They say nobody chooses adult education, adult education chooses them; this was 100% the case for me. So, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to fall completely in love with adult education at the same time our budgets were getting squeezed tighter and tighter. Adult education is so critically important to the well-being of our society, but it’s completely underserved. That’s really hard to witness when your head is full of ideas you feel could be effective but are unable try because of the constraints of corporate mentality. I hit the point where I couldn’t sit on the sideline anymore, making the decision to finally leave publishing very easy.

I honestly believe had I not accidentally found adult education, I likely would still be working perfectly comfortably in K-12 publishing, sitting in some conference room somewhere debating with a team of editors and designers what color font some heading should be or brainstorming some silly feature to try to one-up a rival publisher who has some cool new feature teachers really like. Yuck!

Goumas remains flexible in his vision for CrowdED.

All I have is an idea, and lots of interest…but because what we are creating is something that really doesn’t exist at the moment, I don’t want to make any assumptions about where this all will lead. I definitely have clear milestones as to what technology and platforms we wish to build over the next couple of years, but how we get there is a journey I’m comfortable with playing out in whatever way makes the most sense based on how educators and learners want to use them. Along the way, it literally has been a process of willing the things we are embarking upon into existence; and, so far so good…things actually are happening as I had hoped.

Jeff’s favorite part of his experience as CrowdED’s founder is the level of openness with which he’s been able to operate.

 I think a big part of this is that I’m coming in as “Jeff the founder of this nonprofit” as opposed to “Jeff the guy who works for this big, bad publisher.” In the corporate world, you tend to operate in a manner where everything is under lock and key—like, silly project code names and such. In my work since starting CrowdED, I’ve had complete freedom to be fully open about what we are doing and what we are trying to accomplish, and that has opened so many doors for me far more quickly than I ever would have imagined. There is no secret sauce here; my belief is that if someone were to take an idea we’ve thrown out and make it happen before we do, that’s awesome because something that wasn’t there before but was needed has come into existence and is now helping learners and educators. And, let’s face it, that’s what’s most important in this work.

Goumas thinks there are some things we could change when it comes to the way we think about adult education.

I think we need to do a better job at really listening to the needs of adult learners; both in terms of personal challenges to making the courageous step to enter back into education, as well as what the barriers are both to entry and persistence. Particularly with technology, I think a lot of the “innovation” occurring misses the mark because so much of what is being done is based on assumptions rather than learner realities. There is an interesting three-part study currently being released—the Critiquing Adult Participation in Education (CAPE) study—in which the first report examined deterrents and solutions solely from the perspective on adult currently not participating in formal adult education. There needs to be more of this type of work, and better dissemination of the findings with key stakeholders.

Reading and learning has always been a strong aspect of Goumas’ life.

As for a favorite children’s book growing up, I don’t even know the name of it…..it was some book my parents got me for Christmas from a mall kiosk where they could give a bunch of information—names of me, my friends, even my street—and then there was this “personalized” scratch-and-sniff detective story where I was the detective solving some caper on Revere Street (the street I grew up on). Perhaps that inspired my love of personalized learning? One thing I know it caused was my odd affinity for the smell of skunk! (There was a scratch-and-sniff skunk in there at some point; you know, the classic skunk-as-antagonist tale.)

Learn more and follow CrowdED’s journey!

Member Highlight: Infiniteach

From Biology to Apps

Get to Know Chris from Infiniteach

Infiniteach was founded to change the way we educate and support individuals with autism. The staggering increase in the prevalence of autism – up more than 600% in the past two decades alone – has created a void in effective services and products. Furthermore, in the United States, is estimated that we spend $2.4 million dollars in lifetime care for each individual with autism (Autism Speaks, 2012). As the prevalence and costs of autism education continue to rise, Infiniteach knows that it is imperative that we develop comprehensive and cost-effective solutions that help every child on the spectrum. Infiniteach builds technology to connect individuals to the world around them.

Each app they develop is embedded with best practice autism interventions and proven strategies that increase independence and improve quality of life for individuals with autism. We caught up with Christopher Flint to get the inside scoop on his career path and what makes him tick outside of his work at Infiniteach!

He’s excited to expand Infiniteach’s reach.

I’m the co-founder of Infiniteach. We develop technology to help connect individuals with disabilities to their communities. Our mobile apps support inclusive schools, libraries, museums, and soon-to-be dental offices and airports!

He changed his career plans after volunteering with a student with autism.

I was a Biology major in college, then volunteered with a student with autism, loved it, and changed my career. I’ve been in the autism space ever since as a special educator, trainer, principal, and co-founder of Infiniteach.

Christopher and the Inifiniteach crew joined the CLA before the Literacenter opened its doors!

We met Stacy when Infiniteach was working out of 1871, Chicago’s tech start-up space. She introduced us to her newest concept, Literacenter, when it was still a hard hats required construction zone. We met Jimmy and Allison, and just knew this was going to be an awesome space for all things literacy and education in Chicago.

Outside of his professional pursuits …

Christopher has been playing D&D with a group of guys for the last 25 years.

If he could choose a superpower, he would go with “flying, definitely flying”.

He “loved and still loves” Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

Want to learn more about Inifiniteach? Check out their website!

 

June Confab Speaker Lineup

chicagoliteracyalliance_confab-literacy-professionaldevelopment

 

Please join us at the CLA Confab with presentations from two incredible member organizations: iAchieve Learning and Classroom, Inc. Read on to learn a little bit more about our fabulous speakers!

iAchieve Learning specializes in providing one-on-one tutoring for grades K-12 in all subject areas as well as music instruction for all ages. Their goal is to work above and beyond to help students of all ages reach their highest learning potential. Every student learns at a different pace and has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. iAchieve Learning’s tutors and instructors are trained to recognize these and help prepare a learning plan to help your child succeed.

Sarah Kochan is the Owner and Founder of iAchieve Learning. Working one-on-one with students and teachers has been a passion of Sarah’s for many years. She holds a Master’s Degree in Mathematics, was a high school Math teacher for 10 years, and began private tutoring about 11 years ago. Sarah started iAchieve Learning in 2014 and has worked very hard to create a business that offers many different educational services to be able to help as many students and families as possible. iAchieve Learning started off with one main service, tutoring, and 2 sub-contractors and has now grown to offer 7 main educational services with around 25 instructors. Music has also been a large part of her life and she has been playing the piano for 29 years. Seeing the progress and results that students are able to achieve in a single learning session is amazing and is what inspired Sarah to start iAchieve Learning. She is an active member of the Chamber of Commerce for Des Plaines, Park Ridge, and Mount Prospect, a member of Learning Forward, and the National Association of Professional Women. Sarah is passionate about teaching, helping others, and making sure every student and educator is provided with an exceptional learning experience.

Classroom, Inc. creates digital learning games and curriculum set in the professional world that foster students’ literacy and leadership skills and connects school to life in an authentic workplace. Their research-based learning approach has combined innovative learning games, data-driven tools, and educator resources to personalize learning for all youth in grades 5-9.

Noreen Haque-Colombe came to education through corporate America. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Aviation Administration and a Master’s Degree in Education and participated in community outreach where she taught a kindergarten class. The experience served as an impetus for her to change careers and pursue education. She has been in involved in education for over 10 years and has worked as a classroom teacher, Program Manager, and curriculum design and professional development instructor. She feels incredibly fortunate to have worked in professional development as it offers the opportunity to work with a variety of school communities and learn about their needs. Working in professional development, she has worked to help schools maximize instruction and implementation. Meeting a variety of school staff and students is always a pleasure for Noreen. Each school has its story and it is always an honor to take time to understand what their successes and areas of improvement are. Outside of work, she enjoys traveling, reading, and biking with her two daughters.

We hope to see you at the Confab on June 20th – RSVP today!

May Confab Speaker Lineup

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This Month’s Literacy Changemakers

 

Please join us at the CLA Confab  with presentations from two incredible member organizations: Empower LD and the Schuler Scholar Program.

EmpowerLD is nonprofit corporation that exists to inform and educate the larger public on the nature of learning differences, including the social and emotional impacts. EmpowerLD aims to provide practical, applicable, and actionable information to teachers, parents, students, and professionals so that individuals with learning differences can be fully appreciated and empowered to meet their full potential. Laura J. Thompson, AM, LCSW and Melodee A. Walker, Ph.D. will present on their behalf.

Laura J. Thompson, AM, LCSW
President
B.A., Psychology
A.M., Social Work

Laura is a native of Illinois. She earned a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1996, followed by a Master’s in Social Work at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. In graduate school, Laura focused on clinical and school social work, which led her to internships in schools in the northern suburbs and the west side of Chicago. Working extensively with students with severe emotional, behavioral and learning disorders helped her to understand the social and emotional impacts of living with learning challenges. Laura joined the Hyde Park Day School, a school for bright kids with learning challenges in 2000 and remained there until opening her private practice in 2010.

Melodee A. Walker, Ph.D.
Vice President
B.A., Elementary Education, Reading Endorsement, University of Northern Iowa
M.Ed., Learning Disabilities (K-12), Calvin College
Ph.D., Special Education, Learning Disabilities and Behavior Disorders, University of Texas

During her doctoral studies, Melodee served on grant-funded research teams at the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas examining the impact of multi-component reading interventions, as well as investigating systems and programs as they relate to improved outcomes for students with disabilities across the nation. She also participated in the preparation of preservice special education teachers as an adjunct professor at Texas State University. Prior to beginning her doctoral studies, Melodee was a teacher in general and special education classrooms across diverse settings for eleven years. She has also worked in the private sector providing remediation, evaluation, consulting, and advocacy services for students with learning differences. Her primary research interests include dyslexia, effective reading instruction for students with reading difficulties, schooling practices, and observation studies, with an eye toward increasing the alignment of prevailing practices with research-based instructional practices.

 

The Schuler Scholar Program supports high-potential youth to gain access to and succeed at selective colleges. The Schuler Scholar Program believes if students are motivated, have access to academic and enrichment programs while in high school, are well-informed of college options, receive support from a wide network, and secure financial assistance that they will have a better opportunity to attend the college of their dreams. Kareem Mohammad will discuss their work.

Kareem Mohammad
Reading Program Associate

Kareem joined the Schuler Scholar Program in July 2015 as an AmeriCorps Scholar Coach serving Maine Township High School East. Kareem has earned bachelor of arts degrees in Psychology and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. As an advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community, he uses his knowledge and experience to create diverse and inclusive programs.

As the Reading Program Associate for the Southern region, Kareem collaborates with school staff to customize in school and after school programs, providing thoughtful feedback, in an effort to create innovative curriculums. Kareem lives in the city and in his spare time collects manga (Japanese comics).

 

After their presentations, attendees will have the opportunity to make announcements and chat with fellow literacy advocates. RSVP today!